Will we ever see a single dominant Android phone maker?
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Since its rise to prominence, one of Android’s defining features is its variety of manufacturers. HTC manufactured the first major Android release, the T-Mobile G1. Motorola manufactured the original Droid, which helped catapult Android into the mainstream. Samsung has been busy manufacturing all types of handsets on its way to being the top Android producer. At the same time, numerous other manufacturers have pumped out Android handsets of all ilks, from the most basic entry level phone to high-powered quad-core models.
Yet we live in a society that appreciates homogeneity. That is, we want things to be the same. That’s one reason the iPhone has fared so well. It raises an interesting question: will one Android manufacturer stand out and win most of the market?
The Big Four
Even now, with any manufacturer capable of installing the Android OS on its handsets, separation exists in the market. Much like the U.S. wireless industry, there is a BIg Four in Android manufacturers: Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and LG. All four of these companies have been largely successful with Android, and chances are none will break off of the platform any time soon. That could mean trouble for smaller manufacturers.
The dominance of this Big Four makes it increasingly difficult for other companies to gain a significant market share. Lesser known manufacturers, such as Huawei and ZTE, have made great efforts to enter the smartphone market by installing Android on high- and low-end devices. While they’ve found some success, it has mostly been with smaller carriers. Their lack of brand name recognition hurts them with the larger market.
The already established power of these four manufacturers could keep out newcomers in the same way that the power of Android and iOS have pushed out, and kept out, alternative platforms such as BlackBerry and Windows Mobile. From there, the market could narrow.
The year 2011 was a landmark one for Samsung. It started the year as the world’s fourth-largest smartphone producer, but ended up on top, passing Research In Motion, Apple, and long-time market leader Nokia along the way. Unsurprisingly, Samsung also ships more Android-powered handsets than any other manufacturer. Even at the smallest U.S. carrier, there are plenty of T-Mobile Samsung cell phones on display. They have entered essentially every portion of the smartphone market.
As Saul Alinksy describes in Rules for Radicals, power is not a static concept. Power is always moving, and no entity can hold a consistent amount of power. One is either gaining or losing power. As such, Samsung will have to continue gaining power, despite its current market lead, if it plans to remain atop the smartphone sales charts. Since the other three manufacturers hold the lion’s share of the remaining power, Samsung will have to pull from them. And therein we could see Samsung move towards becoming the single Android manufacturer.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. As Microsoft taught us in the 80s, the power lies with the platform developer, not the hardware manufacturer. Samsung has long been developing its Bada operating system, and could move in that direction as to avoid becoming a commodity manufacturer. There’s also a matter of another high-powered manufacturer.
Google and Motorola
Last year Google turned heads when it agreed to acquire Motorola Mobility. While Motorola had spun off its mobile unit with an eye on a sale, it seemed odd for Google to make that acquisition. At the time, many pundits speculated that Google desired a move towards the Apple model, wherein one entity controls the hardware and software. Yet that does not appear to be the case, at least for the time being.
Google claimed that it bought Motorola for its patent portfolio. Considering the ludicrous number of technology lawsuits currently in court, acquiring these patents certainly provides benefit to Google. Further demonstrating Google’s lack of desire to become another Apple in the smartphone market: they reportedly offered to sell Motorola’s handset manufacturing division to Huawei. That’s a pretty clear sign that they’re not into the manufacturing thing.
More platforms in the future
One thing that could throw a wrench in this entire idea is the development of two more mobile platforms. Research In Motion made waves recently when they company demonstrated its BlackBerry 10 platform. We will see those handsets later this year. Microsoft has made a big push with Windows Phone as well. With Nokia signed on, Microsoft could certainly make progress in the mobile market.
If RIM and Microsoft find success, what’s to stop Samsung from going all-in with Bada? After all, they are the largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, so they do hold some cards. If they see others cutting into Android’s and iOS’s market shares, they could choose to pursue a more sovereign path. Then again, the allure of free licensing from Android could keep them tethered to the Google platform.
The future of smartphones seems up in the air. With smartphones spreading far and wide, into previously unexplored markets, we’ll get a better idea of where the lines will be drawn. In the future there is a strong chance that we see just one Android manufacturer. It might not be Samsung, but one company will move to control the power in the Android environment. It’s just a matter of time.
Joe Pawlikowski writes and edits many technology blogs across the net. He writes about telecommuting and other work-from-home topics at his personal blog, A New Level.
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